The researchers warned that the permafrost’s melting could revive microbes and bacteria that are dangerous to humans. The behavior of some of them is unknown to scientists.
Melting permafrost leads to the revival of microbes and bacteria, which may be thousands or millions of years old. These layers can contain ancient frozen microbes, the remains of the Pleistocene megafauna, and more. As the permafrost thaws at an increasing rate, scientists are faced with the challenge of detecting microbes, bacteria, and viruses that can be dangerous to humans.
Permafrost covers 24% of the Earth’s surface, and the constituent parts of the soil vary with local geology. Arctic lands can harbor unexplored microbial biodiversity and lead to increased emissions of carbon into the atmosphere.
“We are now faced with the degradation of permafrost, which revives those microbes and bacteria, which may be more than one thousand or even a million years old. And all of this, naturally, makes us pay more and more attention to this topic, ”said Nikolai Korchunov, a senior official of the Arctic Council from the Russian Federation.
Some of these microbes are already known to scientists. Methanogenic Archaea, for example, metabolize soil carbon to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Other microbes in the permafrost consume methane. The balance of these microbes is critical in determining future climate warming.
Others are known to scientists, but they do not know how they will behave after release. New data on the movement of genes between thawing ecosystems indicate their multi-level restructuring. In the Arctic Ocean, the planktonic bacteria Chloroflexi recently acquired genes used to degrade carbon from terrestrial Actinobacteria. The researchers speculate that as the melted Arctic rivers carried sediment from the melting permafrost to the sea, the genes to recycle carbon from the permafrost also carried over.